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For some students, spring break means hard work and lending a hand

By Stephen Mikolaitis
On March 9, 2012


Kayla Weimert spent her entire sophomore spring break tearing down walls, painting, and meeting families in need.

She was the team leader for an alternative spring break trip with Habitat for Humanity. She was responsible for getting her team where they needed to be each day, as well as coordinating with project managers about what her team needed to do.

The experience from this trip not only gave her leadership skills but gave her a chance to be project coordinator for this year's alternative spring break.

The Norwich Center for Civic Engagement is offering two alternative spring break trips this year.  One will be with Habitat for Humanity, the other will be with Heifer International, according to Nicole DiDomenico, the director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Norwich.

"Alternative spring break is part of our alternative breaks program, which includes Thanksgiving break as well as spring break," said DiDomenico. "It's an opportunity for students, as a team, to travel to another part of the country."

"We usually focus on the Northeast part of the country for the common goal of doing a service project with one of our national community partners," said DiDomenico.

There are usually three trips offered each year for an alternative spring break, however a decline in  interest in the program this spring means there will only be two offered this year, according to DiDomenico.

The NU Visions Abroad Program is an overseas service program modeled after the alternative breaks model program.

"Next year we are going to be offering one national trip and one international trip. The international trip is going to be to Haiti, and it's going to be a Norwich assessments trip, which will turn into an NU Visions Abroad Program eventually," said DiDomenico.

The national trip will be a domestic Habitat for Humanity trip.  Applications for both trips will become available to students at the beginning of next fall semester.

The Center for Civic Engagement has never done an international alternative spring break before; usually international trips are directed by the NU Visions Abroad program.  "This is kind of a combination; it's with the intent of it benefiting and becoming a part of our NU Visions Abroad program," said DiDomenico.

"We are taking advantage of this one week, over spring break 2013. We can assess what kind of service projects will be done on future NU Visions Abroad trips to Haiti."

Alternative break trips tend to attract a wide variety of students to participate, she said, noting "some are international students, some students are from distant places where it would cost too much forthem to go home for spring break, for Thanksgiving break, or students who are looking to do something a little bit different that is a relatively low-cost fun, resume-building activity for them."

The two alternative break trips differ in location and cost.  The alternative Thanksgiving break trip is a local project that costs $100 to participate in. The alternative spring break trip is usually a non-local trip outside of Vermont that costs $200.

"I have been involved in AmeriCorps, and I give 40 (volunteer) hours for each break so I do it to earn hours. Also I am from Texas, so I would have to pay a lot to fly back," said Kelsey Baker, a 19-year-old sophomore international studies major from Austin, Texas.  "It is a lot easier financially for me to stay here."

"I just did the Thanksgiving break this year, and the spring break trip last year," said Baker.  "There were two choices (for spring break) you could go to Habitat for Humanity or Heifer International. I went with Heifer."

"Heifer International is a non-profit non-governmental organization founded in 1944.  Its mission is to work with communities to end hunger, poverty, and to care for the earth, through sharing donated animals, knowledge, and skills," according to the Heifer International webpage.

Heifer provides donated animals to families in underdeveloped countries to help create sustainable micro- development, by giving individuals the means to escape poverty themselves, according to Rowly Brucken, an associate professor of history and trip advisor for alternative break.

The idea behind Heifer, he said is "that individuals have an entrepreneurial spirit in them, and all they need is a little help to start the process." Brucken said,  "The farm we are going to in Rutland, Mass., is a demonstration of this.

The Heifer International project offered as an alternative break is a service-learning site. Although the students are performing chores and working on projects on the farm itself, they are also learning about animal husbandry, and taking informational workshops about Heifer International's mission.

"We will go through numerous activities that discuss issues of poverty and development, then we will look at examples of intergroup cooperation, and how seemingly very small acts can have profound consequences on an individual family, explained Brucken.  "We will also do a role-play on how to feed a family on very little money."

The role-play at the Heifer farm had participating students spend a night in a small house with a limited amount of rations, money, and bartering items.  Students had to learn how to haggle in a mock market in order to purchase enough food for the group staying in the house, explained Baker.

"The idea was we were supposed to feel what is like to be poor and hungry," said Baker.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit Christian ecumenical housing ministry founded in 1976.  Its goal is to work to rid the world of homelessness and housing poverty, through building and rehabilitating decent housing with volunteer labor and donations," according to the Habitat for Humanity webpage.

Habitat for Humanity is a "build project" where students do  hands-on construction projects. Students may begin participating at any stage of the project with tasks ranging from tearing down walls to simple cleanup work, said DiDomenico.

"(Habitat for Humanity) is helping families who have been challenged in the past with having permanent residence," said DiDomenico "Maybe it's a family who has been displaced by some sort of tragedy, or they are people who have been trying to own a home, but for financial reasons it has been difficult."

Under the Habitat arrangement, Habitat helps build homes for families in need, at a low- to no-cost interest rate, "so they are basically being charged the cost of the house, and not being charged interest," explained DiDomenico.

The families who receive the homes have to put in a certain number of "sweat equity" hours helping build the house as part of the project, doing everything from supporting the volunteers by making lunches, or by helping with the building project itself, explained DiDomenico.

"(Habitat for Humanity) does this domestically, and internationally as well," said DiDomenico.  "We have several Habitat for Humanity chapters here in Vermont, and we partner with one of them with our Habitat for Humanity collegiate chapter on campus."

The President of the club is Kayla Weimert, who is also coordinating the next alternative spring break trip as student coordinator. She's been working on planning the trip since November, said Weimert,  a 20-year-old engineering and architecture double major from Lonaconing, Md.

"I have been taking care of making sure we have confirmation with the site, we have our work, we have our deposits in, we have everyone registered for the trip, and getting students to volunteer for the trip," she explained.

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